It’s easy for the majority of Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity and political affiliation to ignore the fact that in the nation’s capital hundreds of thousands of people are denied full citizenship. But many residents, like Julius Hobson, James Forman, Wilhemina and Calvin Rolark, Hilda and Charlie Mason, Monica and Lawrence Guyot, Nadine Winter, Angie King Corley, Josephine Butler, Conrad Smith and hundreds of others fought for statehood before passing.
Still other advocates continue the fight while other Americans can’t seem to understand the psychological effects of being denied statehood and allowing members of Congress, predominantly White males, control their existence.
“Oppression has been described as a state of domination where the oppressed suffer the consequences of deprivation, exclusion, discrimination, exploitation, control of culture, and sometimes even violence,” Anne Anderson wrote in a published work titled, Hometown Washington, D.C.: A Case Study in Domination.
Anderson, a clinical social worker and former coordinator of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, has lived in Washington, D.C. since 1964. She has been making presentations on the psychological effects of being denied statehood for almost a decade.
This year, Anderson and Anise Jenkins, executive director of Stand Up! for Democracy in D.C. Coalition (Free D.C.) handed out brochures on the subject to thousands of attendees at the American Psychological Association’s Conference, Aug. 8 -10. “I am convinced that this domination, this oppression (lack of statehood), will continue until the legitimacy of the claims of the citizens of the District of Columbia are accepted by the majority of the people of the United States and they insist that their legislators change our status.”
The domination of D.C. by Congress is complicated by competing claims to legitimacy from the federal government and the local communities. This sense of powerlessness leads to some bitterness and isolation. Indeed, a favorite saying in D.C. is, “We are surrounded on the North, South, East, and West by the United States of America,” a poignant expression of the alienation residents of the District of Columbia feel when reflecting on their home city circumstances vis-à-vis the rest of the country.
There is another set of delegitimizing themes that use race and class to label D.C. as incapable, not ready for democracy. “In 1987, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Ma), sponsor of the Senate D.C. statehood bill, blamed reluctance to grant representation on the ‘four toos': The District is too Black, too liberal, too Democratic, and too urban,” wrote Anderson.
This underlying factor is what well-known psychologist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing said is the reason why statehood has not been realized for decades. “I hear this all the time from my patients. Black people in the District face stress and duress by living under the racist tyranny of White oppression. In other words, how do Black people in the District feel in general about their vulnerability? There is an overwhelming sense of absolute powerlessness across the board,” Welsing said.
Former Sen. Charles Moreland (D-D.C.) agreed. “All who live under home rule are political slaves. Thus, in some form or another, Washingtonians have taken on the slave mentality. Whether resisting congressional tyranny, accepting it, or in denial that it exists, we are all pretending at politics in a make-believe democracy,” Moreland said. “The influence that Home Rule has over the psychology of Washingtonians is so spellbinding and subtle that although we are completely disenfranchised, it is very difficult for most of our residents to understand how we are being oppressed.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray concurred. “That denial puts a heavy burden on our minds because being treated as second-class citizens is frustrating and unfair to one’s existence.”
Statehood advocates also believe this is why many Washingtonians fiercely resent being told they are political slaves, even while being denied the basic human rights that every other American inherits as a birthright. “Compounding the problem is the fact that our make-believe elected officials have a history of allowing our local laws to be perverted by the constant threat of congressional veto. Every law, every rule, and every regulation on the books is tainted by congressional oversight,” Moreland said.
Refusing to give up, Jenkins continued to hand out brochures and educating outsiders about the psychological damage to District residents. “The psychological effect is what our ancestors must have felt when they were declared to be three-fifths of a human being,” said Jenkins.